Recently I threw a baby shower for my daughter. She wrote me after, “Mom, that was not a baby shower, that was an event.” I was so thrilled that she loved it, but most importantly, I was thrilled that I accomplished it, for her. There were many people, at the shower, that stated to me, they had no idea I could do that. What I know is, if I set the bar, I will reach it.
When I was a kid, they said I wouldn’t graduate high school. I literally heard my adoptive parents and doctors talking about the irreversible brain damage and that it did not look good. The best thing that my parents did for me was NOT baby me. They put the same expectations as they would have any other child.
After I got my masters degree, my kindergarten teacher came to my graduation party. She was so proud. She knew where I started and supported me through my entire schooling. She told my adoptive parents, when I was five, “There is something really wrong with Ann. She needs to be assessed.” The neurologists thought they knew my limitations, but they never figured in my determination. I raised my own bar and I reached it.
I was told I would not hit a baseball because my eyes do not converge and I don’t have depth perception. I hit homeruns. I practiced for hours a day until I could meet the bat to the ball.
I was told I wouldn’t be able to ride a bike. I rode a unicycle in parades.
I was told I would never drive. I drove a postal service vehicle with the steering wheel on the opposite side of a car and I have also driven trucks. When I went for my testing at the post office, the doctor said, “You really don’t have ANY depth perception.” I begged them to let me drive. I drove perfectly and they actually asked me to stay on as an employee after my summer job, with them.
I was told I would not be able to communicate well. I did not speak until I was three and I was considered an elective mute, years after that. Now, I teach social studies classes and talk to parents, in meetings. There are times my voice wants to cut out, but I have learned how to overcome. I never let my brain tell me what my limitations are. I find a way around it. From reading into tape recorders to understand the text to taking five hours to do homework when it took my peers an hour... nothing was too difficult. No expectation was too high. If I set the bar, I hit it.
As a swimmer and swim coach, I always told my swimmers to mentally picture where they want to be in their mind. I told them to picture themselves diving into the water, stroke by stroke through their event. I told them to picture every flip turn until they came into the wall hard...of course winning. The kids I coached made it to Stanford, U.S. Olympics trials, and on the actual team. They made it to many major colleges and did well academically. I believe in making, it no matter what, and disabilities should never be an excuse for a limitation.
If a child hears a parent, teacher, or doctor say they will not be able to do something, they unfortunately just might prove them right. They might find that determination and drive within themselves to do it, but they also might use their advocates’ excuses as their own.
The best gift that anyone can give someone with Autism is the belief that they can. To not give them any excuse and to not ever say in front of them, “but they have Autism.”
My dad died when I was 11. My adopted mom had to go to work. I became a latchkey kid. An 11-year-old with Autism, on my own, until very late. I came home and had my routine. I had the quickie TV dinners, every night, but I did it. I put my own dinner in and did my homework. The best thing that happened to me was my dad passed away and I was forced to be on my own and find ways to make it, regardless of disabilities. Some might not understand that, but it caused me to be strong and find a way, by myself, around every obstacle. I still, to this day, will do something a hundred times if I have to. I am the Thomas Edison of Autism. If it doesn’t work a thousand ways, I will keep going until I find a way. Oh, it is believed that Edison did have Autism, by the way. So, people with Autism will go as high as you place the bar. They will reach as high as their own expectations. No excuses. No allowing I can’ts. Expect and they will do. The worst thing you can ever do for someone with Autism is allow them to have an excuse for being babied or not owning behaviors or allowing them to not reach their goals.
Oh, one more thing. As someone who grew up with abuse, foster homes, post traumatic stress, failure to thrive, adoption, death, more abuse and having to raise myself the majority of my life with Autism as the cherry on top, there seriously is never an excuse to allow any of the above, in any combination to be a reason for a child with Autism, to use that as an excuse to not move forward. If I can do it, they can too. Just set the bar and they will reach it. Don’t ever let them hear you use anything as an excuse for them to not be their best. The best gift you could ever give someone with Autism is BELIEVE that they can without ANY reason for them not to.
We have become a society of labels. We are categorized, sometimes even victimized, by the ways in which society perceives us. We are a nation of victims, in so many ways. We have individuals who sue for spilling hot coffee on themselves. We have college students begging for “safe” spots in which they can be free from hearing opinions that do not match their own. Everyone gets a trophy. Everyone wins. Every one of us is such a special snowflake.
Society’s views have changed so much over the 20+ years I have been teaching. Focus has been drawn away from accountability and toward nurturing a child’s self esteem. Twenty years ago, if I had informed a parent that their child had harmed another child, that child would have had pretty severe consequences at home. Today? A parent will ask what the teacher has done to create anxiety in the child, to make him hit another student. The child will likely be rewarded at home, in the days following, for managing to make it through a school day without hitting anyone.
We are setting the bar very low for today’s children, all across America. Our academic expectations have increased (in some cases being so difficult as to be developmentally inappropriate.) Our kids are competing: in sports, music, dance, and organized activities, by the age of three. Children are given expensive electronic equipment as “toys.” Movies with adult themes (even the beloved Star Wars) are being mass marketed toward children. Children socialize through Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, and other electronic formats. They are being given adult privileges without any expectation of adult responsibility.
Conversely, the lessons of “growing up” are not present in American families, the way they used to be. Table manners, respect for authority, personal responsibility, chores, and personal faith are all considered “old fashioned” and are rarely emphasized in the home or schools. Parents go to any lengths to protect their children from learning the lessons of winning and losing, of experiencing failure, of ever being “wrong.”
Add Autism to the mix and the protective urge multiplies tenfold. While we have come so far in understanding the nature of disabilities and have made huge strides in acceptance and inclusion for all, we have taken a huge step back by forgetting the ability in the term disability. In many cases, we accommodate to the extent that we disable a child to a greater degree than is necessary or appropriate.
I tell parents, all the time, a child will not seek to outperform a parent’s expectations. If you ask him to clean 10 items in his room, a child will rarely decide to clean 12! (In fact, most will clean 8 and then declare the job “finished.”) When you constantly set low expectations or do a job for him or make excuses for inexcusable behavior, your child hears the message, “I am not capable. I am not able.”
Children with Autism can do amazing things and will do them, if they are encouraged and expected to. Children who are taught accountability become adults who are employable. Employable adults are happier, healthier, and more able to live independently. Isn’t that what every parent wants for their child?
Don’t wait to teach these lessons! It is never too early and no individual is ever “too disabled” to learn the basics of life. Listen carefully. Respect yourself and others. Cooperate in a group. Do your best. Never give up. These are the rules for my classroom and for IDEA House. I have perfected them over the years and have never encountered a situation in which they were not pertinent and applicable.
In every interaction you have with your child, ask yourself if you are expecting him to follow these five rules. If you are not, ask yourself “WHY?”